Newsweek Tells Christians They Are Wrong

Newsweek‘s cover story is exactly what happens when a writer fueled by open antipathy to evangelical Christianity tries to throw every argument he can think of against the Bible and its authority. To put the matter plainly, no honest historian would recognize the portrait of Christian history presented in this essay as accurate and no credible journalist would recognize this screed as balanced.”  — Al Mohler, President of Southern Seminary and Boyce College

[Prefatory note: This is the (semi-)Christmasy post that was delayed a couple weeks. Blame George Lucas, JJ Abrams, & Disney.]

Continuing a time-honored tradition among skeptics and atheists, especially around this time of year (and Easter), Newsweek published a major article informing Christians — conservative ones, at least — where they go wrong in regards to the Bible. OK, it actually came out last Christmas (2014), so maybe I’m a little slow in responding and many others beat me to it. Still, the nice thing is that it is still relevant today, and I can put out a “Christmas” post (of a sort) with some substance. Though the article isn’t specifically about Christmas, there is a section that mentions the Nativity and the Three Kings/Wise Men. Nice how that works out.

Newsweek-on-the-BibleThe article in question was authored by Kurt Eichenwald, Senior Writer for Newsweek and former investigative journalist, who has an impressive resume, though mostly in business and financial matters. In his screed, Eichenwald rails against the ignorance, inconsistency, and bias of Christians, while seemingly oblivious to his own. He marshals many “evidences” — somewhat scattershot, though within sections — to cast doubt on the authenticity and reliability of the Bible and seeks to denigrate those who credulously believe in it, while not really knowing the truth about it. Sound familiar? Eichenwald claims not to be demeaning the Bible or evangelicals, using a “Just the facts, folks. Don’t shoot the messenger.” defense; but, it seems quite obvious from his tone and bias that he means to do just that. Even while making the occasional valid point, his attitude of smug superiority permeates. Not internet-troll snarky, but still…

Let’s be honest here, though. There is a lot of truth in several of Eichenwald’s initial pronouncements. For example, there are indeed many “Christians” — certainly of the “cultural Christian” type, but also of the devout Jesus-follower type — who don’t know their Bible as well as they should. (Guilty as charged, here.) We are inconsistent in our Christian walk and can be rather judgmental at times. (Some more than others.) Yes, many of us have innocently confused artistic renderings with actual Biblical information. And, we often don’t know the events of church history or the reasoning behind orthodox theology or formation of the canon, the methods of textual criticism, sound hermeneutics or responsible exegesis — assuming one is even familiar with the terminology. Of course, Eichenwald is counting on this, even while he betrays his own ignorance and reliance solely on liberal/skeptical “modern Bible experts” (i.e., Bart Ehrman, Richard Elliott Friedman, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Jason David BeDuhn; elsewhere, John Shelby Spong, John Hick, Sir Anthony Buzzard & Charles F. Hunting, etc.). If he has engaged with conservative, evangelical scholarship on any of these matters, it certainly isn’t apparent in this one-sided diatribe.

The author also has a particular bone to pick with political conservatives — especially leaders like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Michele Bachmann — who use the Bible to “justify” their socio-cultural and political positions, who dare ask God to “save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats” and “pray for the country’s salvation.” I agree that some Christians can occasionally misuse Scripture in their socio-political warfare, but I generally disagree with Eichenwald in the particular misuses and dangers involved. (Probably because I am one of them.) Furthermore, he tries to make a political statement/accusation by equating the GOP with evangelicals, which clearly ignores both the known diversity within the Republican Party and the broad spectrum of political associations among Christian evangelicals.

As for the broader message of the piece, however, Eichenwald greatly overstates his case. First, he opens with condescension, insults, and slander (“God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians… religious rationalizers”), accusing Christians of being not only biblically illiterate but hate-filled and anti-science. These are caricatures for which he gives no example or explanation, though, based on comments elsewhere in the article, I’m guessing he refers primarily to the issues of homosexuality and creationism. His subsequent arguments against the authenticity of historical Christian orthodoxy and understanding of the Bible are similarly ridiculous and one-sided. In fact, any apprehension I had that there might be something particularly worrisome or unexplainable in the article vanished when the author commenced his critique with that old trope of the biblical skeptic, the “telephone game” of biblical translation.

“At best, we’ve all read a bad translation — a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.”

Such hyperbole is meant to shock us, but it is laughably inaccurate and a gross misrepresentation of the facts. While it is true that the original manuscripts (aka “autographs”) have not been found, and the average pew-sitter may not realize this, it isn’t as big a deal as Eichenwald makes it out to be. Focusing on just the New Testament, Dan Wallace gives some background information on the manuscripts in question:

Manuscript-evidence1“Although we know of some translations, especially the later ones, that were based on translations in other languages of the Greek text (thus, a translation of a translation of the Greek), this is not at all what scholars utilize today to duplicate as faithfully as possible the original wording. No, we have Greek manuscripts — thousands of them, some reaching as far back as the second century. And we have very ancient translations directly from the Greek that give us a good sense of the Greek text that would have been available in those regions where that early version was used. These include Latin, Syriac, and Coptic especially. Altogether, we have at least 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original. Almost 6000 of these manuscripts are in Greek alone. And we have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by church fathers. There is absolutely nothing in the Greco-Roman world that comes even remotely close to this wealth of data.”

So, scholars like Dr. Wallace who are well-versed in textual criticism have plenty of source material (plus additional archaeological and historical information) to study and compare, when determining what the autographs most likely said. They are not reliant on questionable translations of translations of copies of copies, ad infinitum. Regarding the comparison with the “telephone game”, Wallace continues:

“[T]he transmission of scripture is not at all like the telephone game. First, the goal of the telephone game is to see how badly the story can get misrepresented, while the goal of New Testament copying was by and large to produce very careful, accurate copies of the original. Second, in the telephone game there is only one line of transmission, while with the New Testament there are multiple lines of transmission. Third, one is oral, recited once in another’s ear, while the other is written, copied by a faithful scribe who then would check his or her work or have someone else do it. Fourth, in the telephone game only the wording of the last person in the line can be checked, while for the New Testament textual critics have access to many of the earlier texts, some going back very close to the time of the autographs. Fifth, even the ancient scribes had access to earlier texts, and would often check their work against a manuscript that was many generations older than their immediate ancestor. The average papyrus manuscript would last for a century or more. Thus, even a late second-century scribe could have potentially examined the original document he or she was copying. If telephone were played the way New Testament transmission occurred, it would make for a ridiculously boring parlor game!”

Question: If all we have is bad translations of imperfect and/or intentionally altered copies, how is it that Eichenwald (or his “experts”) are supposed to know what the originals said?

Part of Eichenwald’s problem may be in thinking that the King James Version (KJV), from which he often picks his examples of odd words and questionable translations, is the “gold standard of English Bibles”. That may have been true a century of two ago, and certainly there are people today who prefer it — there are even “KJV Only-ists” on the fringe who believe the KJV itself was inspired. But, most scholars (and many laypersons) nowadays recognize that we now have earlier texts and better translations of those texts than those that the KJV was based on. Also, contrary to Eichenwald’s claim, the KJV’s translators did not use the Latin Vulgate as their primary source. They used Greek texts for the New Testament and Hebrew & Aramaic texts for the Old Testament. (Even Wikipedia gets this right!)

From here, Eichenwald tries to make much hay over the fact that there are a few biblical passages that were added later by enterprising scribes. In other words, they probably cannot be attributed to the traditional authors of the books where they appear, nor do they therefore belong in the “inspired” scriptures. In pointing this stuff out, he seems to think that only the liberal scholars he uses are familiar with textual criticism. After all, that discipline is how these sorts of things are discovered. But, even if there are some “average” Christians who are unaware of these issues, conservative scholars have known about these things for just as long and have been noting them as such in new translations.

Jesus Christ and the Adulteress, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1532)

Jesus Christ and the Adulteress, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1532)

For instance, Eichenwald first highlights the Pericope Adulterae, in which Jesus is presented with the woman found guilty of adultery. Many (most?) versions nowadays include a note saying the passage is only found in late manuscripts or something like “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” He brings up the “long ending of Mark” (16:9-20), which supposedly gives additional information about Jesus’ early, post-Resurrection appearances. These verses also do not appear in the early manuscripts, as is noted in modern translations. Similarly, Eichenwald mentions the Comma Johanneum (I John 5:7), which in the KJV has additional text that is often used in support of the doctrine of the Trinity. But, it shouldn’t be, because it is not found in any Greek manuscript before the 16th century. (A footnote in my Bible told me that!) While it may be true that some Christians aren’t aware, the fact that conservative textual critics and Bible publishers note these issues for laymen is a mark of honest scholarship.

Mostly what we see in the rest of the article is a frustrating mix of irrational expectations, misunderstandings (e.g., of the Gospel, of the Levitical law), oversimplifications & misrepresentations (either through ignorance or intentional straw men), conspiracy theories, and other logical fallacies. Another tired, standard claim of skeptics that appears in the article is that early Christianity was rife with confusion and arguments over doctrine, so who’s to say that the “official canon” is any more accurate or authoritative than the Gnostic gospels and other apocrypha? This is clearly an appeal to the Bauer Thesis, as championed by Ehrman and other liberals/skeptics, which has long been invalidated. Even Ehrman has somewhat conceded this. (See, for example, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, by Kruger and Kostenberger.)

Yet another falsity is the assertion that the newly-crowned and supposedly “Christian” Emperor Constantine influenced (perhaps even coerced) what books ended up in official New Testament canon. This is a claim unsupported by history, though it is often connected to the First Council of Nicea (AD 325), which was assembled at Constantine’s request. (Blame fiction like The Da Vinci Code for perpetuating such notions.) Interestingly, Eichenwald doesn’t say anything further to connect Constantine with biblical canonicity, though he does assert an imaginary 5th-century “vote” to determine which Gospels would be included. When he speaks about the Nicene Council and resultant Creed, he acknowledges that the primary subject was the deity of Jesus Christ, though he is sloppy in his characterization of both the issue and the circumstances.

Eichenwald also makes a few weird claims, inferences, exaggerations, etc.: e.g., the book of Romans teaches against debating; a Christian will go to Hell for being inconsistent; I Timothy inveighs against females going into politics; Jesus vs. “family values”. These are quite odd, and I just don’t know if Eichenwald is intentionally taking things out of context to misrepresent biblical teaching, or if he is truly ignorant of how far off the mark he is.

Not surprisingly, the Newsweek article has some sort of criticism against “creationism”, as inferred earlier. It begins by saying, “Few of the Christian faithful seem to know the Bible contains multiple creation stories.” And that is absolutely correct. However, contrary to what Eichenwald seems to think, nothing demands that all those creation accounts cover all the same events, in the same way, with the same themes, and from the same perspective. I know that Eichenwald thinks they should, because he right away points out the differences between the first two “creation stories”, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, advising us that “Careful readers have long known that the two stories contradict each other.” He explains:

“[B]iblical scholars have concluded that two Jewish sects wrote many of the books [of the Pentateuch]. Each prepared its version of Old Testament, and the two were joined together without any attempt to reconcile the many contradictions. These duplications are known as ‘doublets.'”

He goes on to give similar examples of seeming contradictions in Gen. 6 & 7 and quotes one of his (liberal) biblical scholar sources, Richard Elliott Friedman, for support.

I have a couple of comments on this. First, Genesis 2 does not actually claim to be an account of the creation/formation of the world. Rather, the differences between the first two creation accounts can more reasonably and easily be explained as a shift in perspective and focus, such that they should be read as complementary passages. Dr. Hugh Ross explains:

Jacques_Christophe_Valmont_Bomare_Adam_naming_the_animals_400“While Genesis 1 focuses almost entirely on the physical creation — what God made or made happen and in what order, Genesis 2 begins to elaborate on the why, or purpose, of creation. The Genesis 1 storyteller describes the unfolding scene of the six creation days from a vantage point somewhere just above Earth’s surface, but below the clouds, as God prepared a suitable habitat for humanity. Genesis 2 zooms in on a small portion of Earth’s surface (Eden) and what occurred from the vantage point of one human being (the first human) in that locale, walking and awakening to the sights and sounds all around.

Genesis 2 elaborates on who we humans are in relation to God and to the rest of creation, including each other. It describes the extent of our authority and responsibility. Given the strong emphasis on chronology in Genesis 1, a reader may have difficulty adjusting to the nonsequential arrangement of physical details in Genesis 2. Its summary parenthetical reference back to the chronological account performs a literary function, bringing some cohesiveness to the two passages.”  — Navigating Genesis, p. 95

Second, Friedman (and, thus, Eichenwald) clearly espouses and relies on the Documentary Hypothesis for these claims. This “higher critical” theory, also known in its current form as the (Graf-)Wellhausen Hypothesis or JEDP Theory, is a favorite method for liberal “Christians” and skeptics to cast doubt on the authenticity and reliability of the Old Testament. In a nutshell, the theory looks at various questions of style and vocabulary in the first five books (i.e., the Pentateuch) and concludes that various pieces of those books were written by at least four distinct authors during different periods, centuries after Moses. Matt Slick of CARM.org has put together a brief examination and refutation of the theory. If you want a more scholarly — yet still accessible — treatment, Gleason Archer’s A Survey of Old Testament Introduction contains quite a bit of material explaining the theory’s history, weaknesses, and fallacies, including a separate chapter on “Variations and Doublets as Criteria for Source Division”.

The Newsweek article also touches on controversy and “contradictions” in the Bible regarding Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. (Besides the timing of when this article was published, this is the connection to Christmas that justifies my calling this a Christmas post — though, of course, a few points are more Easter-y.) The first instance of this is in the midst of the Constantine/Nicea section, where Eichenwald tries to get a lot of mileage out of the fact that Christians moved their Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday — supposedly “to satisfy Constantine and his commitment to his empire’s many sun worshippers” –, that the word “Sunday” does not appear in the Bible, and that the December 25th date for celebrating the birth of Jesus had pagan origins. As usual, these are not nearly the “gotchas” that he thinks they are. (I addressed some of these concerns in my blogpost “Is December 25th Pagan? (Part 2 of 2)”.)

Later, the “No Three Kings?” section goes into things like the differing accounts of the Nativity events, misunderstandings by modern believers about inns and houses and numbers of Magi, supposed “problems” with the genealogies, etc. I spoke to some of these concerns in “Are The Gospel Accounts of the Nativity Contradictory?”. The author then expresses similar doubts and dismay about the Gospel accounts about Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection… How long was Jesus’ conversation with Pilate? How many women went to Jesus’ tomb? How many angels were there? Eichenwald sees irreconcilable contradictions; I see accounts by different people that can be reconciled and integrated into a coherent whole. I wrote about this in “Bible Contradictions at the Empty Tomb (Part 1 of 2)” and “(Part 2 of 2)”.

There are many other things Eichenwald brings up in his article which I don’t have time to get into, but he finishes with the ever-popular “Judge Not”:

“Jesus said, Don’t judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own.”

Unfortunately, Eichenwald only understood part of the message about judging, though this is a common mistake by Christians and non-Christians alike. As it happens, I also have a 2-part blogpost on this topic, with Part 1 addressing it from a practical, nonsectarian angle and Part 2 specifically looking at the relevant Bible verses for the doctrine brought up in the article. I encourage you to hop over there to give that a read, then come back here. I’ll wait…. (In my opinion, Eichenwald is the guilty party here.)

Large full bookcase, second hand bookshop, fictionNow, I don’t fault Eichenwald for asking questions and encouraging biblical literacy. As I’ve said, I agree that it is an area many everyday Christian believers could improve upon. I’m also sure that he is an intelligent man and, when he wants to be, a thorough investigator and fair analyst of facts. But, if a nobody like me, with only a modicum of familiarity with the subjects at hand and spending just a few hours researching over the past few weeks, can find scholarly, historically orthodox sources that clearly and reasonably counter his claims, it makes me wonder if Eichenwald’s investigative skills are a bit rusty. Or, perhaps he didn’t want anything to get in the way of his skeptical and subversive narrative.

By the way, Eichenwald says he is not promoting any particular theology, purporting only to be admonishing the “unwashed masses”. Or, as he put it, the intent was to “shine a light on a book that has been abused by people who claim to revere it but don’t read it, in the process creating misery for others.” But, in his efforts to present a corrective on many Bible- and theology-related issues, he does at least imply a particular theology, which in many cases is indeed contrary to traditional Christian orthodoxy and, thus, an attack on the beliefs of laymen and scholars alike. Just wanted to point that out, as others have.

“Christians seeking greater understanding of their religion should view [this examination] as an attempt to save the Bible from the ignorance, hatred and bias that has been heaped upon it.”

Eichenwald berates conservative Christians — i.e., “fundamentalists” — for being moralistic, judgmental hypocrites who ignore biblical context and history, who make the Bible say what they want it to and Jesus into whomever they want Him to be. (I have already acknowledged that there is a kernel of truth to that, in some cases.) Unfortunately and ironically, he is guilty of doing exactly what he exhorts Christians not to do, and he doesn’t even realize it. Even more sadly, the average non-Christian (and maybe some Christian) reader of the Newsweek article in question would rather believe this baloney unreservedly than put forth the effort to seek out and fairly consider the other side.

If you, dear reader, want to read some of those explanations and counterarguments for the many topics in question from a conservative, largely evangelical perspective, I recommend searching out articles, books, and podcasts from scholars like: Craig Blomberg, Daniel B. Wallace, Michael J. Kruger, Darrell L. Bock, Paul Copan, Norm Geisler, Bruce Metzger, Gleason Archer, Richard Bauckham, Vern Poythress, James R. White, Michael Brown, Ben Witherington, just to get you started. A few of these gentlemen responded to Newsweek/Eichenwald with articles of their own, although the various topics had been dealt with in various media long before Eichenwald’s article appeared. Following a lengthy Twitter exchange with Eichenwald, White did two 90-minute video responses to the Newsweek article, where he goes through and addresses virtually every claim & accusation made therein (some in more depth than others), repeatedly encouraging Eichenwald to call in to the show to present scholarly evidence and explanations to back up his claims. (Eichenwald never called in, but in a subsequent Twitter exchange, he basically ignored White’s challenges.) You should watch it.

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